Posted by: Rob Viens | May 14, 2012

An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

On May 14th Darwin was feeling better:

“My arm is nearly well. I took the opportunity of paying several calls; that most empty yet burdensome form of civility.” (May 14)

Ah, poor Darwin – the burden of being a respectable gentlemen – social calls.  His wording pretty much sums up what he thinks of that task – “most empty yet burdensome” indeed.  So back to:

Beetle Mania logo

The evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane Is famous for having repeatedly said that the Creator must have “an inordinate fondness for beetles”, for the simple reason that there are just so many varieties of beetles on Earth. (He also noted that the Creator also was “endowed with a passion for  stars” – again, because there are just so darn many of them.) Stephen Jay Gould added to this by noting:

“God is most likely to take trouble over reproducing his own image, and his 400,000 attempts at the perfect beetle contrast with his slipshod creation of man. When we meet the Almighty face to face he will resemble a beetle (or a star) and not Dr. Carey [the Archbishop of Canterbury].”  (Gould, Dinosaur in a Haystack)

Darwin would almost certainly have agreed, for he too, was passionate about the marvelous world of Coleoptera (and in his earlier days may have even agreed literally with the quote).

Young Bobby was always a collector of things but it was his cousin William Darwin Fox who really turned Charles on to beetles while they were at Cambridge together. In his autobiography Darwin writes:

“But no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting, for I did not dissect them and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions, but got them named anyhow.” (Autobiography)

Darwin and Fox spent many hours collecting together and it almost became a competition to see who could find the rarest species.  Even when they were apart on vacation, letters between Darwin and Fox are full of “beetle talk”.  For example:

“On Wednesday I set out on my Entomo-Mathematical expedition to Barmouth; by the blessings of Providence I hope the science will not drive out of my poor noddle the Mathematics.— Talking of the science I must tell you, that since beginning this letter, I think, sir, upon my soul sir, I will take my oath sir, (as Way would say), that I have discovered, that I posses a valuable insect, viz Melasis Flabellicornis, … also I have taken 2 new Elaters; one with reddish brown elytra, the other with yellow elytra, red thorax & black head. – Also, have taken Tritoma Bipustulatum, … also a small black Byrrhus, with brownish band across the back; also a small Silpha, with a red spot on each elytron;” (Correspondence to William Darwin Fox, 30 June 1828)

Another fellow student of Darwin’s (Albert Way) captured Darwin’s interest in a cartoon, which I have inserted into the bumper sticker that Darwin almost surely would have had if such things existed in the 19th century:

Darwin's Beagle Bumper Sticker

Even Fanny Owen, Darwin’s romantic interest (see Fanny Owen and the Mail Call Blues), was jealous of the time he spent on his beetles, writing (when he did not visit her during the Christmas holiday):

“I fully expected to have seen you—but I suppose some dear little Beetles, in Cambridge or London kept you away— I know when a Beetle is in the case every other paltry object gives way —if I could have sent to tell you I had found a Scrofulum morturorum perhaps you might have been induced to come down!— how does the mania go on, are you as constant as ever?” (Correspondence from Fanny Owen, 27 January 1830)

(By the way – her “species” name is made up and (I think) means something like “disgusting dead thing” – though I defer to any readers who know Latin better than I do. Please comment.)

Darwin obsessed about beetles – creating new ways to collect and trap them, hiring assistants to collect them for him, and even using some “creative” methods to try to obtain new beetles for his collection.  He records a particularly memorable outing in his autobiography:

“I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one.” (Autobiography)

Darwin’s habit of writing to Fox about his “beetle exploits” continued during the Beagle voyage, and a good example of this came this month while he was in Rio.  Darwin wrote to Fox::

“My collections go on admirably in almost every branch. as for insects I trust I shall send a host of undescribed species to England.— I believe they have no small ones in the collections, & here this morning I have taken minute Hydropori, Noterus Colymbetes, Hydrophilus, Hydrobius, Gyrinus, Heterocerus Parnus, Helophorus Hygrotius, Hyphidrus, Berosus &c &c, as a specimen of fresh-water beetles.” (Correspondence to William Darwin Fox, May 1832)

Ah – those old competitive habits die hard! More on this list of specimens as Beetle Mania Week! continues tomorrow. Until then… (RJV)


  1. […] discuss their mutual love of beetles, and all the types he has been finding in the New World (see An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles), but raves about the best part of the trip – the geology: “But Geology carries the […]

  2. […] but he was really passionate about collecting more species of beetles than his friends (see An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles).  I think quote from his Autobiography sums it up […]

  3. […] So why is the hog-nosed skunk a creature after Darwin’s own heart (aside from being named after his hero – Humboldt)?  Well – this little critter is an insectivore that uses its “hog-nose” and claws to root out beetles and grubs.  Although Darwin doesn’t use his nose, he has been known to be so obsessed with beetles that he has put them in his mouth (see An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles). […]

  4. […] Hope was an entomologist who became well known for his studies of beetles (Coleoptera).  In fact, one of his main contributions to the field was his three-volume Coleopterist’s Manual published between 1837 and 1840. (That is what Hope was busy working on while Darwin cruised the world). Recall that beetles were Darwin’s weakness, too (see An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles). […]

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